If children are the future, the future is more controversial than ever. After decades of "education presidents," President Obama is taking a crack at the U.S. education conundrum by enlisting billion-dollar programs like Race to the Top to raise subpar test scores to the levels of other nations, and rescue low-income students from drop-out factories. Yet, this time he may have more financial muscle and allies than past leaders, including Washington D.C. schools chancellor, Michelle Rhee (aka "the hatchet lady") and an idealistic new generation of teachers willing to trade tenure for six-figure incomes, plus big spenders like IBM, which is creating a high school-college hybrid that guarantees students jobs at the company.
Watching director Davis Guggenheim's latest documentary Waiting for Superman, one wonders how much his film was a product of, or fueled, this heated debate. Using adorable animated interludes to illustrate how our educational system operates as well as scary statistics, the film outlines the complexity of the problem. Interviews with the researchers behind the numbers, including Rhee and her fierce opposition, American Federation of Teachers president Randi Weingarten, fill in the rest of the details of Guggenheim's portrait of the sad state of affairs. At the heart of the issue is that "great schools require great teachers," and due to tenure, unions and a tangle of bureaucratic red tape, it's nearly impossible for schools to rid themselves of lemons, turkeys or whatever name a district has for inadequate teachers.
Yet as knotty as the situation may be, Waiting for Superman suggests the solution is simple: charter schools. Pioneering educator Geoffrey Canada and others tired of a failing system have taken matters into their own hands. Not all of the independent yet public-funded charter schools they have created perform well, but those that do produce amazing results. Canada, Rhee and others believe they hold the secret to educational success, such as longer school days, higher standards and above all accountability, especially for teachers. But as these schools are rare, the only way in is through a lottery.
If this were the gist of Guggenheim's documentary -- troubling facts and figures, political bickering and glimpses into struggling schools -- many audiences might leave theaters unsettled, but not necessarily inspired enough to take action. So early on, Guggenheim puts a face to the problem, a group of "so cute you could cry" grade-school faces. By the end of the film, unless you're dead inside, you likely will cry. Bam! Now you're emotionally invested. He films these (mostly poor) students and their parents' struggle to get them into neighborhood charter schools. Soft-spoken, doe-eyed Daisy wants to be a veterinarian, nurse and doctor. For good measure, Guggenheim adds a teen from a wealthy Silicon Valley suburb, where the schools aren't as good as they look. In a heart-pounding, heart-wrenching finale, the documentary follows the families until the last lottery ball rolls out.
Guggenheim's gotten plenty of flack from teachers and others for leaving out crucial facts and for unduly favoring charter schools. However, isn't the purpose of a good documentary to make the public aware of a problem, open a dialogue, and inspire people to get involved? If that's the case, Guggenheim's done his job in the 90-minute running time. Did he leave things out? Probably. Ideally, those who think so will join the debate and become some of the supermen and women that help rescue the U.S. education system and its floundering children.